here is the first in a series of occasional posts about books that can inspire us, not just in terms of their content but also their capacity to encourage us to take part in campaigns and activities to make the world a better place.
I have been involved with the Working class Movement Library for many years and I believe that writing and researching working class history is a political act. If we know our history, then we can learn from it and use that knowledge to keep politically active and encourage other people to do likewise. Jill Liddington, for instance, begins this book by telling us that she stood in her local elections to stop BNP candidates being elected.
The campaign for the vote was one of the most exciting periods for women in this country but, as Jill recognises;
As a suffrage historian, I know that the campaign for the vote was much wider than Emily Wilding Davison’s martyr’s death….and so much broader than the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst which inspired such suffragette daring and bravery.
Jill has been researching and writing suffrage history since the 1970s. Her books have educated us, so we now know that there was far more to the campaign for women’s equality than the Pankhurst story. Her book One Hand Tied Behind Us; The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (1978), which she wrote with the late Jill Norris, took us into the world of the working women of the north west. Their demands were not just for the vote, but also included greater political representation and improved working conditions through trade unionism .
In Rebel Girls Jill tells the story of the suffrage history of the Yorkshire region, an area that has previously not been researched or written about. It’s a region that provides a vibrant and exciting chapter in the history of the campaign for the vote:
They are decidly not the politically-experienced radical suffragists of Lancashire’s cotton towns, but daring rebel-girl suffragettes – usually between sixteen and twenty-five- who time and time again hurled themselves against the intransigent Liberal government.
And what did they women want? They wanted a new way of living, including equality in all aspects of their lives. They wanted an education, jobs with a living wage (something still being fought for in 2013) and a sexual freedom with greater personal choices.
In Rebel Girls Jill tells the stories of eight women who were born between 1881 and 1891. They lived through a highly charged era when taking on the authorities meant breaking all the rules and being punished for their political activity, including going to prison or being forced to go underground.
It is history at its most relevant, telling the story of otherwise unknown women and casting a light which;
Shifts little-known actors from the shadowy wings to well-lit centre stage: a new drama and chronology emerge, offering a fresh narrative history of women’s suffrage.
The front cover of Rebel Girls shows one of the most interesting characters in the book, sixteen year old Huddersfield weaver Dora Thewlis. Huddersfield was at the centre of the textile world. Families such as the Thewlis’s worked as weavers in the local mills and became active in the local labour movement.
In 1907, at the age of 16, Dora is earning almost a pound a week. Brought up in a highly politicised community her mother boasted of her daughter:
Ever since she was seven she has been a diligent reader of the newspapers, and can hold her own in debate on politics.
Dora and her family were inspired by the ethical socialism of the Independent Labour Party and the campaign for the vote. The Pankhurst campaign, the Women’s Social and Political Union, arrived in Huddersfield to set up a branch and fifty women signed up, including Dora and her mother.
It is fascinating to read the accounts of the Huddersfield women when they went down to London on 13 February 1907, the day of the King’s Speech at the opening of Parliament. The women charged the doors of the House of Commons, fighting police on horses, for over several hours. Fifty six women were arrested:
Most of the prisoners were working class women from Lancashire, Glasgow and Yorkshire, reported the Daily Mirror, and the mingling of dialects made a strange element in the hubbub.
On 20 March it was Dora’s turn to take the train to London and become part of a contingent that once again marched on the House of Commons. The House was defended by 500 constables, but it did not stop the women. By 10pm seventy five women had been arrested, including Dora and seven women from Huddersfield. Their average age was twenty-seven and their occupations included weavers and tailoresses.
Dora’s arrest was captured by the Daily Mirror and again by Jill on the front cover of Rebel Girls. She was sixteen years old and was dubbed the Baby Suffragette by the papers. Dora was remanded to Holloway Prison and eventually released back to Huddersfield. She came back as a heroine and to parents who were extremely proud of her.
One of the reasons I really enjoy reading this book is because Jill reminds us that this history is an important part of the story of our fight for democracy in this country. And at a time when it is hard for people to feel inspired by politics, its good to remind ourselves that these women often worked ten hours a day in factories and then went out leafleting and to face violence at public meetings. They are an inspiration and in books such as Rebel Girls we are reminded how important it is to carry on the tradition of challenging authority, particularly as at the moment it is trying to take away everything that we see as essential in a democratic society.
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